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Mr. Westlund Goes Back to Salem: Catching up with Oregon's new state treasurer 

Just days after Ben Westlund was sworn into office as state treasurer, we spent some time on the phone with the Tumalo resident and former

Just days after Ben Westlund was sworn into office as state treasurer, we spent some time on the phone with the Tumalo resident and former state legislator to see how he was settling in and what he had up his sleeve for the days and years to come as one of the state's three constitutional officers. Westlund, the first Central Oregonian to hold the office of treasurer, had already hit the ground running by the time we talked to him and here's what he had to say about his staff, healthcare and his decision to transform himself from a Republican to an Independent to now a Democrat.

You were just sworn in this week, have you had a chance to settle into the office yet?

We're rocking and rolling here. We have a couple pressing issues coming in but we haven't exactly had a chance to breathe in the office yet.

So it sounds like you've kind of hit the ground running...

Well, I'd say we're 99 percent moved in. The transition is completely complete and all the right people are in place. I'm thoroughly excited about how we've not only structured the office, but the individuals we have in place to carry out the mission. So, I am really, profoundly thrilled at how well things are going.

We noticed that you have former Bulletin reporter James Sinks as your communication director, are there any other folks with Central Oregon ties on your team?

We obviously have James, who is a big part of the team. We also have Stacey Dycus as chief of staff and she's a Central Oregon resident. But everyone else vacations over there.

A lot of people were saying that whoever won this race would be facing a daunting task considering the economic environment. Considering that you're saddling up in the position right now, how daunting exactly is it?

It's challenging and we're certainly in unprecedented economic times, but because of the staff and because of the capabilities of this office-both the professional staff that was here and the policy staff that I have hired-I remain undaunted in these daunting times.

What is the first point of business you're tackling?

Well let me back up just a little bit. You learn to expect the unexpected and that's just part of the public policy process, so even this is not unusual that such a significant issue, by which I'm referring to the 529 plans [Oregon's college savings fund which was implemented by Westlund's predecessor, Randall Edwards, and recently reported to have lost a large chunk of its value under the stewardship of the invest giant Oppenheimer], has risen to such high profile status so quickly, as unexpected as it is, that's not usual.

You talked a lot about healthcare during your campaign, and understandably so considering your personal background, but looking forward what can you do as treasurer in the realm of healthcare?

First of all, my healthcare is an open book and that certainly gives me more of a personal understanding of healthcare issues. My personal experience totally aside, the reason that this is so important to me as a state Senator, or maybe I should say was important to me as a former state senator, and why it's equally important to me as state treasurer is because healthcare is the single fastest growing line item for most companies, particularly small businesses. It's for every reason, not just the moral, humane reasons but the cost containment of healthcare. You can lower the cost of healthcare, not just reduce the rate of growth, but if we can lower the cost of healthcare, that's pure capital that goes into these companies' budgets. So as treasurer, the state's chief financial and fiduciary officer, that is not only a strong personal calling for me, it's also professional.

Your campaign was interesting in that it seemed like your race was the one that Oregon's alt-weeklies used for their token Republican endorsement. That had to be a little maddening for you.

You know, the endorsements and the policies of editorial boards all around the state are their endorsement picks and policies and it's not my place to second guess them. Does every candidate in every race want to get all the endorsements? Of course. But the fact that you don't is part of the process and we expected that going in. We always expected that the Republicans would field a strong candidate and we never took anything for granted, and quite frankly I think that's one of the reasons we prevailed.

Right, and at the end of the day, the voters were on your side.

Exactly. It's representative democracy in action and the voters have spoken.

Now that you hold a state office, how do you look back at that decision to go from a Republican to an Independent to now a Democrat?

This was a difficult decision under any circumstances. I don't think that anyone with the exception of perhaps Libby, my wife, knows how hard that was for me. This wasn't some overnight, wake up some morning saying 'Gee, wouldn't it be nice' sort of thing. This started probably the second month of '97 - a little background - the make-up of the (Oregon) House was 31 Republicans, of which I obviously was one, and 29 Democrats. So, the slimmest of margins. The Republicans wanted to revisit Oregon's death with dignity law and the honest truth is that I had really thought deeply about that issue and it always made sense to me to honor the dignity of all human beings. It just made sense to me. So, all of a sudden I come rolling into my first session and I'm really dealing with my conscience. At the end of the day I was one of only two Republicans [who supported the measure]. So here's this kid from Central Oregon who's still wet behind the ears breaking with the party. That was the first in a long line of decisions where my conscience and my voting record were contrary to the party. I instantly became a R.I.N.O - Republican In Name Only - so, maybe this is too long of a story, but when you talk about party registration and what that has to do with winning or not winning, that didn't have anything to do with it. It was a long struggle that resulted in me finally finding a political home.

You're the first central Oregonian to be elected to state office since Tom McCall. Is this a sign that the region is gaining a little political clout within the state?

A couple fun little factoids. We went back 45 years and the simple way to say this is that I'm the first constitutional officer: governor, secretary of state, treasurer - there are only three constitutional officers, I'm the first constitutional officer to be elected from east of the Cascades in over 45 years. It could be one year longer, or much longer, but we stopped looking. Tom McCall and Norma Paulus were elected, but by the time they were elected they'd been west of the mountains for a while. Norma Paulus - one of my favorite Republicans - had been clerking over here at the Supreme Court for 15 to 20 years. But in terms of your question, we certainly have more numbers east of the Cascades and Deschutes County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country. Those numbers aren't significant to elect a statewide official. But what is important, however, is that the capacity of our new citizens - they're pretty capable, comprehensive, committed, driven type of people who are being attracted to Central Oregon. So I think we've got a deeper talent pool there than our sheer population numbers would indicate. Deschutes County, taken as a whole, by and large is pretty representative of the whole state. Depending on the issue or the candidate, it's either a little center right or a little center left. By golly, I'm very comfortable within those parameters.

You talked about green industry during your campaign. What can you do as treasurer to use this green movement as an economic driver?

One thing that I think is very clear is that I am incredibly proud to be from Central Oregon and I've represented Central Oregon in the legislature for more than a decade and when I come to this constitutional office, I bring my Central Oregon priorities with me. Again, with Central Oregon really being a microcosm of the state as a whole, our great future and our promise is growing and expanding right there in Bend, Oregon. And I'm talking about some of these incredible companies that are starting to flourish: IdaTech, PV Powered and others. The innovation economy is really the future of this state. I mean, in spite of and also because of ourselves, we are recognized as the epicenter for solar technology in the world. A higher percentage of our power comes from wind than any other state. This is who we are and that isn't just the rightness of how we produce and consumer our energy, this is the economic future and the technologies are not just economically viable, they're profitable. I'm so excited by this and the opportunities are great.

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